The idea for a new French airport near Notre-Dame-des-Landes, a farming village some twelve miles northwest of Nantes, was originally floated in the late 1960s.footnote1 Promoted by a regional bourgeoisie entranced by the modernization rhetoric of the post-war boom, it met immediate resistance from local farmers. Reasons for building the airport changed over the years—a touch-down point for Concorde, a third hub for the Greater Paris region, a real-estate bonanza for developers of Nantes’ existing airport. Meanwhile, the re-classification of the six square-mile site as a zone d’aménagement différé, or zad, for eminent-domain purposes, allowed the state’s solicitors to purchase land from farmers willing to sell and, in a sort of expropriation by attrition, to wait for other landowners to die. Put on hold during the economic crises of the late 1970s and 80s, the airport plan was resurrected in 2000 under Jospin. It was given official go-ahead in 2008, in the teeth of local opposition. That spring an old farmer, chatting to some local squatters during an anti-airport demonstration in Nantes, proposed that they come and occupy one of the empty farmsteads in the zone.
Over the next decade, a permanent encampment of activists flourished on the land, fighting off the development attempts by the French construction giant, Vinci. The occupiers recast the bureaucratic acronym zad as la zad—zone à defendre. At its height, the zad contained a bakery, a radio station, a newspaper, a bar, a website, spaces for musical performances, several subsistence farms and a market where no money changed hands. Yet the movement against the airport was decades in the making and the occupation only a late-stage crystallization in a process of multiple, intersecting forms of protest and organizing efforts that brought together farmers, squatters, anarchists, trade unionists, nantais citizens and elected local officials. It is more accurately described as a collective of organizations, ad hoc nature studies, investigative committees, farmworkers and other permanent residents, as well as members of the writing collective, Mauvaise Troupe.
In ZAD and NoTAV, the group pairs the experience of Notre-Dame-des-Landes with a parallel, ongoing struggle in Piedmont. The project for a high-speed train, or tav—Italian: treno ad alta velocità—piercing the Alps between Lyon and Turin, was conceived by eu planners as part of Corridor Five, a mega-project for transport infrastructure that would arc from Lisbon to Kiev, to link the eastern and western flanks of the newly united continent. The tav was scheduled to cut through the Val di Susa, running up from Turin to the French border—the route the Roman legions took into Gaul. Densely settled as it approaches Turin, studded with winter-sports resorts in its higher Alpine reaches, the Valley is a very different environment, geographically and socially, from the Loire-Atlantique—not least in its absorption through urban overspill of strains of Turin’s traditional worker militancy. Yet the NoTAV campaign that sprang into being here in the 1990s confronted a nearly identical problem to the zad’s: the construction of redundant infrastructure.
Just as Nantes is home to a perfectly functional airport, an existing train line already operates, often at half-capacity, between Lyon and Turin. A giant motorway was constructed here in the 1980s, spanning the Valley on huge concrete struts, though it already possessed two national roads. In the words of Gianluca, a NoTAV pirate-radio operator, this is a territory ‘midway between the mountains and the Turin periphery, even from the point of view of work—it must be the most industrialized, ruined, polluted, ravaged-by-infrastructure Alpine valley in all of Italy.’ As with the zad, the NoTAV movement developed into an unlikely alliance between resistant villagers, ranging from pious Catholics to middle-aged ex-Maoists, and the young Turin autonomia and squatter milieus—a collaboration between dramatically contrasting political cultures. A signature of the movement has been its huge popular demonstrations, 80,000-strong, with village banners, tractors and icons of the Madonna of Rocciamelone making their way past rocks daubed ‘tav=Mafia’, a reference to the big Italian construction interests involved.
ZAD and NoTAV is an elegant attempt to give a comparative account of these two sited struggles and to elicit the lessons in ‘political intelligence’ that they suggest. Mauvaise Troupe has already produced two shorter books on the zad and an earlier compilation of stories and pictures from other alter-globo and anti-austerity struggle sites, mainly in France. Based on over a hundred interviews conducted in the Val Di Susa and Notre-Dame-des-Landes in 2014–15, ZAD and NoTAV is an attractively written hybrid of amateur ethnography and reportage, buttressed by first-person accounts, opening out into a set of speculations on ‘the people’ and ‘the popular’, the relations between the different components of these ‘communities in struggle’, the uses and abuses of the territories involved, and the potential diffusion of such forms of resistance. It’s nicely translated here by Kristin Ross, American scholar of French history and literature, author of landmark works on Rimbaud, May 68 and the Paris Commune, and a supporter of the zad since she was invited there for a discussion on communal luxury. Her informative introduction sets the zad and NoTAV in the context of protest occupations from Japan’s Narita Airport and the Xingu River dam in Brazil to the Standing Rock Sioux’s resistance to the North Dakota Pipeline.
One of the many signs erected on the zad reads, ‘Against the Airport and its World’. With the establishment of a successful communal living arrangement, the possibility of an alternative took on a concrete form and the airport assumed a metonymic function in the thought-world of the occupiers. The attempt to register such an alternative makes for an odd book, resistant to summary. The opening section, criss-crossing between Brittany and Piedmont, provides an over-arching double narrative of the two. It is not easy, however, to disentangle the territory from the people, or the forms of protest—barricades, sabotage—from the logistics of occupation and defence, and these also resist division at the textual level. The book’s structure reflects the attempt to negotiate the untranslatable reality of a territory where the meaning of nature itself was undergoing many simultaneous transformations. The land chosen for the airport had been referred to as both a swamp and a desert by developers. As a result of political struggle, it was discovered that it was in fact a biodiverse wetland.
The proper designation of this muddy landscape is bocage, a borrowed word meaning ‘little woods’, the product of feudal property arrangements. Flat farming land, it is broken up by hedges, shrubs and clusters of trees that record a human footprint made by a pre-capitalist peasantry. It also memorializes the end of communal land usage in Brittany, for the hedgerows were instruments of enclosure. Bocage as an environmental designation thus contains a politically relevant history of land use—and it is land use, in several senses, that is documented and conceptualized in this text. The re-zoning of the area changed the landscape yet again. It is because much of it was taken out of use as farmland in the 1970s that the zad became such a rich site of biodiversity, while the surrounding areas fell prey to agricultural modernization. The construction company and its boosters in the regional government responded with a green-washing campaign. They promised an airport that would aim at ‘optimal integration with the landscape’. Single-storied and covered with a ‘vegetalized’ roof, ‘the terminal will appear like a section of the bocage that rises up’.